Meet Joe Black
13 October 2010
Rating: 5 Bad
Meet Joe Black was the last picture directed by Martin Brest before he helmed one of the most derided films of the last decade, 2003’s Gigli. Brest has not had a job in the movie industry since, and it is not hard to see why. He somehow manages to stretch a script that might justify a two-hour movie into a three-hour mess, stretching a few promising ideas well past the point that they become tiresome. His work here could be Exhibit A in a case that studio interference is not always a bad thing.
Meet Joe Black, a loose remake of the 1934 movie Death Takes a Holiday, asks the question of what would happen if a personification of Death decided to assume human form. The premise (probably as a consequence of Norm McDonald’s character on “Family Guy”) sounds like rich ground for a comedy, but Brest elects to keep the (intentional) humor low-key, and this is really a Romantic Drama.
The film introduces Bill Parrish (Anthony Hopkins), a corporate tycoon on the verge of celebrating his 65th birthday. He's also about to die from a heart attack. One night, after dinner, Death (Brad Pitt) appears with an offer: he'll put off "taking" Bill if, in return, Bill will introduce him to the wonders of being alive. The longer Bill can keep him interested in remaining corporeal, the longer the reprieve. So Bill introduces Death, renamed "Joe Black," to his family: daughters Susan (Claire Forlani) and Allison (Marcia Gay Harden), son-in-law Quince (Jeffrey Tambor), and future son-in-law Drew (Jake Weber). With his almost childlike innocence, Joe is an immediate hit with everyone except Drew, who sees him as a rival for Susan's affections. His fears are justified; soon Joe and Susan are falling for each other, and there's nothing that Bill can do to stop the doomed relationship.
The most striking thing about this movie is its absurd length. And unlike most overly-long movies, it isn’t even just extraneous scenes that stretch out Joe. Instead, Brest makes his actors frequently pause during dialogue, making nearly every conversation in the movie bizarre and awkward, going on twice as long as they need to. Also, there’s a running subplot involving a corporate takeover of Bill’s company that comes off as a half-assed ripoff of Wall Street. I don’t think even Oliver Stone could have made that work. Apparently there exists a cut of this movie (disowned by Brest) that chops off an hour of footage, mostly by eliminating this part of the story. It sounds promising.
In addition, the romance between Joe and Susan, which serves as the emotional core of the movie, is barely passable. The two actors (Pitt and Forlani) are both good-looking, but exhibit little in the way of chemistry. This, plus a few important moments that feel contrived (sometimes humorously, especially the end of their first meeting), makes their relationship seem forced. Also, Brad Pitt simply isn’t very good here. He has talent, but it seems like it takes a particularly skilled director to motivate him enough to show it. It is no coincidence that Pitt’s four best performances have all been in Fincher or Coen movies. He doesn’t phone it in for Brest quite as egregiously as he did for Wolfgang Peterson in Troy, but it comes close.
The other actors fare better. Hopkins, Harden, and Tambor are all good, and the scenes that have at least two of them on screen are easily the best in the movie. A few scenes between Hopkins and Harden are actually quite moving, and I got the sense that if the movie focused on Bill’s relationship with his daughters it would have been much better.
Meet Joe Black might be worth two hours of a viewer’s time. Maybe. But really there is no justification for the bloated three-hour run. Skip it.